Thursday, July 1, 2010

Bulletin #114 – Alaska #2 - Raptors, Owls and Bears

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood, Texas

July 2, 2010

 Bulletin #114 – Alaska #2 - Raptors, Owls and Bears

Hello friends,

I just returned from a great trip to Alaska with TOS (Texas Ornithology Society). They run an annual trip to Alaska in early June. We visited Anchorage, Nome, Barrow, the Denali Highway and had a pelagic trip out of Seward. It was a fantastic trip with most usual birds seen and photographed along with numerous mammal species.

With all the wide open spaces in Alaska, I expected to see numerous hawks and eagles. Needless to say, I was surprised that we found only single specimens of Golden Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, Peregrine, and Merlin. These were basically flyovers.

There were about 2 dozen Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) as I expected. The best photos were of this bird perched on a channel marker in Seward harbor as we returned from the pelagic trip. He allowed the boat to completely cruise around him as we all eagerly took photos from 50 feet away. This was by far my closest encounter with this magnificent bird.

And here he is looking at us and not showing any sign of concern.

The other raptor that I was able to photograph was our largest falcon at 22", the Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolis). Fortunately for the tour group, a pair was nesting under a bridge on one of the roads out of Nome. All you had to do was drive up to the bridge and park alongside the road. This was a life bird for me and most of the tour group. Here is a parent in the nest with chicks. The gray color is the most common, but they also come darker and also white. The white birds tend to be in Greenland or Iceland. The Gyrfalcon is #55 in the book '100 Birds to See Before You Die'. The authors state that you have to see the rare white birds however to count it!

4 Owl species were another treat for the trip. One species we missed was the Northern Hawk Owl. Fortunately I had seen it in Duluth MN in February (photo1, photo2). Of course with the almost 24 hour daylight during the summer, these birds are much easier to find. A Boreal Owl was heard only, but we never could locate it.

Here is a Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus). This medium sized (15") owl was seen twice on the trip. Both times, it was on the ground.

The best bird of the entire trip was a Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa). This is our largest owl at 27" in length, but it tends to be uncommon and hard to find. I was fortunate to see it on my second attempt (I missed it in Duluth, MN in February). It was a lifer for almost everyone on the trip including the guide! To see the bird on the nest was an extra bonus.

We saw 4 Snowy Owls (Nyctea scandiaca), all in the Barrow area. They were always on the ground. I would have expected to see some on power poles etc, but we never did. This all white adult bird on the snow is a treat to see.

In Barrow was this sign at the site of an ancient village, in use for 2000 years. The settlement was called "The Place Where We Hunt Snowy Owls" in the Inuit language. It seems hard to believe that people would eat these noble birds, but they did and still can. Barrow is one of a number of places in Alaska that allows subsistence hunting by the natives. This means that they still hunt and eat whales, seals, birds etc any time of the year.

There are 3 species of bears in North America with all 3 present in Alaska. Unfortunately we missed the polar bears, but did get the other 2.

The Black Bear (Ursus americana) is the smallest at about 6 feet in length and 200-450 pounds in weight. It is also the most widespread of the species. We actually saw this bear on the pelagic trip out of Seward. He was climbing down a steep cliff, apparently to get at the eggs of nesting seabirds and gulls.

Here he is climbing back up.

Then he settled down in a patch of wildflowers that look like lupines, similar to our Texas Bluebonnets.

The Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos) is the large brown bear of the west. It is up to 7 feet in length and 850 pounds in weight. The coastal Alaskan bears are a different subspecies and can be much larger up to 1500 pounds. When we first saw him outside of Nome, he was perhaps 1/2 mile away on the far side of an inlet. We watched as he slowly made his way around the end of the inlet and started coming towards us. When he got to within 150 yards we all got into the vans for safety sake. He continued to come closer and closer. He stopped about 40 yards away. Our driver called out to him and he started running right at us. When he was 15 yards away, we started the van to get away and he stopped dead in his tracks. These photos of him are uncropped. What an amazing encounter!

When he was walking around the lagoon, he found a piece of paper trash on the ground. It must have had food smell or residue on it, as it seemed to be like catnip for him. I was taking the still photos of him when this performance started and we all laughed as we watched him at play with this piece of paper. Here is a slide show of the bear at play. Click the link, then set the speed at 1 second.

I will be leading a 9 day bird photography tour to Costa Rica in conjunction with Lillian Scott-Baer of Baer Travel March 3-11, 2011. We have worked out an itinerary to visit La Selva Preserve, Savegre Mountain Hotel in the central mountains for Resplendant Quetzal and other montane species and Wilson Botanical Gardens (Las Cruces). We have also retained the services of local guide Rudy Zamora to accompany us and locate and ID the birds for us to photograph. We will also have beautiful flowers and hopefully some mammals - tamanduas, monkeys etc.

I will be giving several talks in the evening on bird photography, Photoshop etc.

The price will be $1960 double to $2380 single. This includes hotels, all meals, guide, transportation in Costa Rica etc. The only other cost will be airfare and personal purchases (alcohol, souvenirs etc) . Space is limited to 10 persons to maximize our opportunity to see and photograph the birds. I have birded in Costa Rica previously. It is a wonderful country to visit and the bird life is exceptional. I hope that you can join us.

Here is the schedule of payments for the trip.

$ 25 reservation fee (not refundable)
$ 575 due April 30, 2010
$ 600 due July 30, 2010
$ 740 due January 15, 2011
Please send deposits to:

ScoBar Inc.
34 Galway Place
The Woodlands, TX 77382

Note - we will try to pair up singles and triple would be $1890 per person.

There are only 2 spaces left for this trip as of today, so please email me, if interested.

All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald


photos copyright 2010 David McDonald

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